Microsoft’s ‘Men in Black’ kill Florida open standards legislation


Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller & others*

It was just a bit of text advocating open data formats that was slipped into a Florida State Senate bill at the last minute with no fanfare, but within 24 hours three Microsoft-paid lobbyists, all wearing black suits, were pressuring members of the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations (COGO) to remove the words they didn’t like from Senate bill 1974.

Here’s the text the Microsoft-paid lobbyists didn’t like:

28  ...(1) By July 1, 2009, the Agency for
29  Enterprise Information Technology shall develop a plan and a
30  business case analysis for the creation, exchange, and
31  maintenance of documents by state agencies in an open format

   10:16 AM   03/28/07    s1974p-go00-pd3

   Florida Senate - 2007     PROPOSED COMMITTEE SUBSTITUTE
   Bill No. SB 1974
                       Barcode 565342   585-1947A-07
1  that is capable of being:
2         (a)  Published without restrictions or royalties;
3         (b)  Fully and independently implemented by multiple
4  software providers on multiple platforms without any
5  intellectual property reservations for necessary technology;
6  and
7         (c)  Controlled by an open industry organization having
8  a well-defined inclusive process for evolution of the
9  standard.
10         (2)  Each state agency must be able to receive
11  electronic documents in an open, extensible markup
12  language-based file format for office applications and may not
13  change documents to a file format used by only one vendor.
14         (3)  The Agency for Enterprise Information Technology
15  shall develop rules for state agencies to follow in
16  determining whether existing electronic documents must be
17  converted to an open, extensible markup language-based file
18  format. In developing guidelines under this subsection, the
19  agency shall consider:
20         (a)  The cost of converting electronic documents;
21         (b)  The need for public access to the documents; and
22         (c)  The expected storage life of the documents.

SB 1974’s overall intent was — and still is — to create “an Agency for Enterprise Information
Technology within the Executive Office of the Governor.”

The “Hey, let’s check out open standards” language was added at the request of Rep. Ed Homan, who first got interested in open standards (and open source) when he found out the state was thinking about spending many millions of dollars to upgrade computers and software for its Department of Health, and started to wonder if using open source might not save taxpayers some money.

As chair of the House Committee on Audit & Performance, Homan is supposed to help keep the state from wasting tax money on overpriced goods and services. And since in “real life” (the Florida legislature is a part-time gig for most members) Homan is Doctor Ed Homan, M.D., Orthopedic Surgeon and assistant professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, he has a special interest in the Health Administration and health matters in general.

But until recently, Dr. Homan knew little about open source or why open standards for computer files mattered to anyone. He learned about the topics because his son, Doug Homan, is a software developer who once prided himself on his Microsoft certification, but gradually grew disgusted with Microsoft products and found himself turning to more open development tools for the bulk of his work.

Doug Homan is not on his father’s staff, nor is he a member of any open source group. He first got interested in open source advocacy, he says, because he was “concerned with the digital divide in education.” He says, “It’s a public citizen thing for me,” rather than a political matter in and of itself.

A failed attempt at stealth legislation

Rep. Homan and his son Doug tried to add their little open standards boost to SB 1974 as quietly as possible. They wanted the modified bill to at least get through its first committee approval before anyone spotted what they had done. But Microsoft’s Florida lobbyists were on the ball and spotted it almost immediately.

“It was like the movie ‘Men in Black,'” says Rep. Homan. “Three Microsoft lobbyists, all wearing black suits.”

Another lobbyist (unaffiliated with Microsoft) who would speak only “on background” laughed at the “Men in Black” description. “I know those guys,” he said. “They even wear sunglasses like in that movie. They are the ‘Men in Black’ of Florida lobbying, for sure.”

A legislative staff employee who would lose his job if he were quoted here by name said, “By the time those lobbyists were done talking, it sounded like ODF (Open Document Format, the free and open format used by and other free software) was proprietary and the Microsoft format was the open and free one.”

Two other legislative employees (who must also remain anonymous) told that the Microsoft lobbyists implied that elected representatives who voted against Microsoft’s interests might have a little more trouble raising campaign funds than they would if they helped the IT giant achieve its Florida goals.

Note that lobbyists for IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Novell — the only three companies with a major interest in open source who have registered lobbyists in Florida — did not weigh in on this matter. Microsoft was the only company whose lobbyists openly displayed interest in whether Florida should consider legislation that would officially make state agencies a little friendlier to open software standards than they are now.

On the other side, though, word of Rep. Homan’s requested addition to SB 1974 also leaked out to more than a few open source activists, notably University of Florida political science student Gavin Baker.

Baker posted a long, detail-filled article on the UF-based Florida Free Culture blog about this legislation that was also sent to at least a few Florida Linux Users Group email lists — and helped stir at least a little awareness that there just might be some potential for increased open standards-friendliness in Florida government.

Legislators don’t seem to understand what’s going on here

Suncoast Linux Users Group (SLUG) member Matt Florell sent a message to the group’s email list that said, in part, “I called the offices of my state senator (Charlie Justice) and representative (Bill Heller) about this, and of course neither knew anything about this issue, but they thanked me for my input and would call me back if they get a chance….”

SLUG member Aaron Steimle sent this email:

I called [Senate Committee on Governmental Operations member] Al Lawson, left a message.
I called Bill Posey [another member] and talked with a staff member (sorry didn’t write down his name). First, the staff member I talked with was extremely nice and helpful. [He] didn’t know anything about that particular bill but looked it up and explained to be about how things are added and removed. He also gave me the number of the Senate Operations Governing Committee (SOGC) (I am pretty sure that’s what it was). He said this is where I would find out why the amendment was taken out.

I call the SOGC and talked with Ray Wilson, another very helpful human. Wilson explained that the committee doesn’t need a reason to reject any portion of a bill, which I thought was a great democratic procedure for our constitutional representative democratic republic. So as we have it, our elected representatives do not have to explain to their constituents why they remove sections of bills that greatly affect us. But in this case, they did give an explanation. The clear and precise explanation for removing a “…plan and a business case analysis for creation, exchange, and maintenance of documents by state agencies in an open format” in a bill “…which includes defining architecture standards for information technology & developing strategic information technology plan…” was that it was outside the direction of the bill.

This is a situation that validates the failure in our constitution and the degradation of political system. Lobbyists should not be allowed in government for a company that has a monopoly on a market. If Microsoft wants to have the governments use Microsoft products, they should donate them to the government and get a tax writeoff for it. I should not have to pay taxes so government employees can use substandard expensive software.

Another SLUG member wrote, “Each county gov (and school board) in Florida has an IT head honcho. I would think those honchos get their budgets squeezed on a regular basis. They should be recruited as lobbyists for open standards.”

UF student Gavin Baker called Committee on Governmental Operations member Steve Oelrich, who represents him in the State Senate, and spoke to a staffer he says was “totally clueless.”

Baker pointed Oelrich’s staff (and us) to a presentation he gave last October called Sustaining the Information Society: New (and Old) Conflicts in the Knowledge Economy. Said presentation — be sure to view the slides — points out that use of open data formats isn’t just about short-term financial savings, but is also about long-term preservation of knowledge; that proprietary data formats come and go at a dizzying rate, but with open, standardized ones we have a chance to read today’s saved information in 50 or 500 years, even if Microsoft or Corel or (fill in popular word processor vendor) is long gone, along with its patented or otherwise “protected” data formats.

We, the citizens, need to educate our lawmakers

Florida is just one of 50 US states (plus territories and the District of Columbia) where open standards — not to mention open source software — would save taxpayers money and make “the people’s” data accessible to all, not just to those who buy a particular company’s products. But few legislators know about such things, and when they do hear about software it tends to be in the context of competing vendors vying for the state’s business. Now, for 200 virtual points worth exactly $00.00 in real life, answer this one-question quiz:

“Which software and/or operating system vendor has the largest marketing budget?”

  1. Microsoft
  2. Canonical
  3. LynuxWorks
  4. The Mozilla Foundation

Well, it seems you all got that question right. So let’s try a follow-up:

“Which software and/or operating system vendor spends the most money lobbying Florida elected officials (and presumably others, elsewhere)?”

  1. Microsoft
  2. Canonical
  3. LynuxWorks
  4. The Mozilla Foundation

Same answer, right? At least, it is as far as we can tell when we look at public information about Florida lobbyists and the organizations or companies they represent.

Florida lobbyists are currently required to report only broad “ranges” of how much they take in from each client, but in the case of Microsoft, you can see that they spent a minimum of $100,000 — and possibly more than $200,000 — in combined executive and legislative branch lobbying activities. Note that this does not include lobbying Florida’s federal representatives or any of the state’s many county and local government bodies, nor does it include sales salaries, commissions, or other sales expenses. Those are separate — and for all we know, may add up to far more than Microsoft’s Florida lobbying budget.

And arrayed against Microsoft’s financial muscle we have … you. That is, we have Linux users and open source advocates and public-spirited citizens who know enough about this issue to explain to their representatives why open data formats are important.

This year’s legislative session ends May 4. The chances of getting anything done by then are more or less zero. But Florida open source and open standards advocates will have another chance next year, especially if between now and then our legislators (plus the governor and Florida’s top IT staffers) hear from a whole lot of voters about how open standards and open source are good for all Florida residents, while proprietary standards and software primarily benefit the companies that supply them.

Are there enough Florida voters who care enough about open standards and open source to overcome the combined financial might of Microsoft’s lobbying and sales forces, plus their many distributors, and other businesses (think anti-virus vendors!) who depend on Microsoft products to make money?

There’s only one way to find out….


*Ken Barber, Eldo Varghese, Gavin Baker, Aaron Steimle, and several others helped research this story either by providing links to research material or by calling their elected representatives and sharing the results of those calls with this article’s primary author. Think of this as an elementary experiment in crowdsourced journalism similar to what is being done by AssignmentZero.


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